On Elizabeth Holloway Marston, And Telling The Truth About Wonder Woman
This past Saturday, February 20th, would have been the 123rd birthday of Elizabeth Holloway Marston. She’s not exactly what you’d call famous, but you’ve probably guessed who she is from the headline and illustration above.
Elizabeth Holloway Marston was a psychologist, and the wife of fellow psychologist William Moulton Marston, who’s credited with creating Wonder Woman. At least, she was one of his wives, depending on how you look at it. She was his legal wife, to be sure, but the two lived with a third partner, Olive Byrne, and each woman bore two of Marston’s children.
Given that it wouldn’t have been safe for the Marstons and Byrne to write or give interviews about their polyamorous lives in first half of the 20th century, there’s a lot we don’t know about the structure of their relationships to each other. A lot of accounts by outsiders make heteronormative assumptions, framing the story as William Marston convincing his wife to let his mistress live with them. But William Marston died in 1947, and the two women lived together until Byrne’s death in the 1980s. We don’t know for sure if they were lovers, but they were certainly partners, and had to have considered each other family.
According to Jill Lepore’s Secret History of Wonder Woman, the family was part of a larger “sex cult” that practiced free love and advocated the superiority of women. Lepore also writes that a third woman, Marjorie Huntley, was an occasional member of their household and helped out with the inking and lettering of Wonder Woman comics.
Elizabeth Holloway Marston was also involved in the production of Wonder Woman, and indeed with her creation. Multiple sources credit her with the idea to make the superhero a woman, including this 1992 profile in the New York Times. It’s hard to know what other ideas were hers, as she and Byrne were clearly close confidantes of her husband. She was also involved with the creation of the polygraph lie detector, for which she similarly receives no credit.
Men receiving all the credit for collaborations with their wives is nothing new; in fact it might be the sharing of credit that’s a recent development. Margret Rey, for example, wrote the Curious George children’s books alongside her illustrator husband H.A. Rey, but only his name appeared on the covers for decades. Then there are even more egregious examples, like the painter Margaret Keane, whose husband took credit for her sole creations until she took legal action.
So if we acknowledge Elizabeth Holloway Marston as a collaborator in the creation of Wonder Woman, it seems entirely unacceptable to let her go uncredited, especially given the nature of the character. For all that we could quibble about the differences between the Marstons’ female-supremacist philosophy and feminism as we know it, Wonder Woman has long been embraced by feminists, down to appearing on the cover of the first issue of Gloria Steinem’s Ms. magazine. Whatever else she is, Wonder Woman was the first major female superhero, and remains one of the most significant.
With Wonder Woman soon to arrive on the big screen, it’s time that we in comics stop feeling uncomfortable with the circumstances of her creation, and the lives of her creators.
Right now, on Wonder Woman media, DC uses the line “Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marston.” A better choice might be “Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marston and Elizabeth Holloway Marston.” I’d even consider “Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marston and Elizabeth Holloway Marston, with Olive Byrne.” There doesn’t seem to be much direct information about what Byrne contributed to the character, but she was certainly another confidante, and a constant presence in the Marstons’ lives throughout that era. One thing we do know is that Wonder Woman’s distinctive wrist cuffs were based on bracelets that Olive wore.
In the age of intersectionality, feminism has no choice but to acknowledge all the parts of the movement and its history. For example, a lot of feminists today aren’t comfortable with many of the beliefs of the radical lesbian separatist movement of the 1970s, but we can still acknowledge it as part of our history, and recognize that someone like filmmaker Barbara Hammer can come out of that movement and contribute lasting work to the feminist canon.
So it no longer makes sense to look at the people behind Wonder Woman and want to disavow them, to sweep the details of their lives under the rug. We can talk about how much the form of polyamory they practiced resembles the trite fantasies of many heterosexual men. We can discuss at length what makes a philosophy that views women as better and purer than men different from the kind of feminism that questions the very notion of immutable differences between genders. But at the end of the day, we have to acknowledge that the Marstons believed in the value of women, and they created a superhero with the aim of empowering young girls and showing young boys how powerful women can be. That’s important to comics, and it’s important to feminism.
If we’re going to value Wonder Woman, we need to unashamedly acknowledge where she comes from. It’s no longer amusing to point out the “irony” of Wonder Woman being the creation of a bespectacled psychologist who led a “kinky” lifestyle behind closed doors, to be hinted at and snickered about. Wonder Woman was the creation of two psychologists, William and Elizabeth. They may have had input from their third partner Olive. That part’s less clear, but just because we don’t know whether or not she contributed to Wonder Woman’s creation, doesn’t mean we’re obligated to pretend she didn’t exist.
The era of the obligatory closet is over, even in media traditionally aimed at children. We know that Where the Wild Things Are was created by a gay man, and that Goodnight, Moon was written by a bisexual woman, and we know just as certainly that Wonder Woman was the creation of a polyamorous family.
Perhaps because of a certain immaturity in comics culture, or because polyamory is still more controversial that queer identity, we like to downplay it. We need to stop.
It’s time to acknowledge Elizabeth Holloway Marston as the co-creator of Wonder Woman, and to recognize the influence that her family’s lifestyle and beliefs had on the character. One thing we can be sure that Wonder Woman is meant to value and embody is truth.
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